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Roses of Picardy

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So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

 

---Wilfred Owen, Spring Offensive

 

*

 

Death.

Only hours before the field had been golden-green, brimming with tranquil beauty, glowing sweet and pure beneath the August sunshine. Now it was a wasteland, an abattoir, littered with the dead and the dying, echoing with the screams of men and horses, reeking with the ripe, hot stench of blood and entrails, gunpowder and smoke and the recently churned raw earth.

Through this nightmare Jamie walked quietly, straight-backed, his nose tilted at an arrogant angle so that his captors would not detect the violent cacophony of rage and guilt and horror that lay behind the calm façade. His hands, hot in their tight leather gloves, clenched helplessly as the infantryman behind him gave him a vicious shove, but he scorned to even glare at the man, instead moving at quick-march. He understood enough German to realise that they were taunting him, insulting his parentage, his intelligence, his battle prowess, but he gave no sign of recognition. His gaze never rested; he scanned the field ceaselessly, searching for a familiar figure, a familiar head of bright hair, hoping against hope that he might see a reason for rejoicing amidst the carnage.

Something struck his boot, and he halted in his tracks. A young subaltern sprawled on the ground raised a hand in desperation. “Major…please….”

Jamie knelt beside the young man and took his hand, wishing he could remember his name. The boy wasn’t a day over eighteen, his cheeks still rounded with youth. Red stained his blond hair; Jamie looked at the boy’s legs, torn off below the knee, and quickly looked away again. “Courage, lad,” he said softly.

“It hurts – oh, God –“

The barrel of a weapon prodded roughly between Jamie’s shoulder blades. “Up, Tommy,” the German soldier behind him growled. “Up.”

Jamie rounded on him. “Give me a moment, for Christ’s sake,” he snarled, and turned back to the boy. “The ambulances should be along in short order, lad. Don’t lose heart.”

The boy, who was almost certainly dying, nodded tremulously. “Rotten luck, sir.”

“The worst,” Jamie agreed, and touched the boy’s cheek.

“Can you get a message to my mother and dad, sir?”

“I shall try. What is it?”

The young man’s hand scrabbled at his chest pocket. “Tell them I –“ He coughed weakly, and a reddish froth appeared at the corner of his mouth. He gave a gurgling moan, still clutching at his chest.

“Hang on, lad. Hang on.” Jamie reached into the young man’s breast pocket and withdrew a pay book, crisp and new-looking. “Is this what you wanted me to give them?”

Tears clouded the young man’s eyes. He moaned again.

Jamie clasped the book in his free hand. “Lad, listen –“ He grunted in surprise as two sets of hands grasped his arms and hauled him backward. He struggled briefly, but froze as he saw a young German officer approach the dying subaltern, pistol cocked. “No. No!” He fought to free himself from the grip of his captors, but their combined grip was steel, and his body, mind, and soul were exhausted. Nevertheless, he strained against them, trembling and enraged, writhing at the humiliation of his own impotence and knowing full well what was about to happen. “For God’s sake, no –“

The officer took aim and fired. The echoing crack of the pistol reverberated in Jamie’s ears, unnaturally loud in a sudden pocket of silence, as if the field of dying men and the ghosts of the dead had all paused for a moment to note the passing, the squandering of another young life.

Tears burned in Jamie’s eyes and throat, but he would not let them fall. He shook himself free of the soldiers’ grasp – or they simply let him go – and he glared at the young German officer, longing to wrap his hands round the man’s throat and squeeze the life from him, but he knew even the attempt would avail him nothing. Shame at his own cowardice choked him; he clenched his teeth and held the boy’s pay book in his hands.

The young officer took his cap off, revealing blond, curling hair. He met Jamie’s gaze evenly; his eyes held no malice or glee, only fatigue and sorrow. They were blue, those eyes, and superficially, he looked a bit –

Stop, Jamie commanded himself.

Er starb als held,” the young officer said. He died a hero.

Jamie was in no mood for camaraderie, for fence-mending, for solemn tributes. “I shall be certain,” he replied icily, “to inform his parents of such.” He slipped the pay book into his pocket and knelt again, heedless of the red pool spreading in the dirt, to close the young man’s eyes. He wanted to say a brief prayer, but no words came to mind. Instead, he rose to his feet and walked on.

 

*

 

They reached the garrison town by nightfall, a woefully small group of prisoners guarded by German soldiers many times their number. Jamie moved toward the men herding what remained of his battalion toward a long brick building, but a soldier caught his arm and gestured toward another building in what looked to be the town’s public square. Angrily, Jamie shook the man’s hand off. “If my men are to be imprisoned, I wish to share their accommodations.”

Nein,” the soldier replied, and drew his pistol. Several other men surrounded them, and one pushed Jamie in the chest. Enraged, Jamie pushed back, shoving as hard as he could and knocking the man to the ground. It was a tactical error; the brief scuffle gave the German soldiers a good reason to begin abusing him. Fists battered at his body, and he kicked out to defend himself. Someone took his cap and stepped on it. That contemptuous gesture, small as it was, undid him. He let out a howl of fury and swung in any and every direction, biting and kicking and punching with abandon. There were six or seven Germans, though, and in no time they converged upon him with fists and feet and the butts of rifles, driving him to his knees, sending his breath gusting out in huge, agonised gasps. Good. Good. Have at it, damn you.

Hör auf damit!

The hands holding Jamie let go, and he slumped to the ground. Through ringing ears he heard a German voice raised in anger.

“You God-damned fools! Who gave you permission to assault an officer? Get him up. Get him up!”

Jamie offered no resistance as the soldiers dragged him to his feet. Blearily, he attempted to regard the shouting officer with contempt, but it seemed too much effort. His ribs ached, a back tooth was bleeding, possibly broken, and one eye was beginning to swell shut with astonishing rapidity.

“Get him to the courthouse. Now, you fucking dogs, or I’ll have you whipped from head to toe.”

With an alacrity that would have been amusing if Jamie had had the presence of mind to register it, the soldiers quickly frog-marched him to a building of white stone and forced him into a tiny windowless room, scarcely more than a closet. They flung him toward the wall, snorting with laughter when he crashed into it and landed in a graceless heap, and closed the door, enclosing him in darkness. Jamie heard the scrape of a key in a lock, then more muttered laughter and the retreating scrape and thud of booted feet.

Jamie flung himself at the door, hammering on it with all his strength, hurling curses at his captors. He felt for the knob; there was none on this side of the door, only a smooth metal plate. Seething, he pounded at the unyielding door and roared until his fists ached and his voice was raw and cracked, and there was no reply to his banging and shouting. They’d abandoned him, at least temporarily.

Disoriented, the last of his resources exhausted, Jamie slid to his knees, his forehead resting against the heavy wood. Heavy silence filled the little windowless cell, forcing him to confront truths that the frenzy of the day’s battle had heretofore concealed. He felt his helplessness keenly, his youth, the shocking ingenuousness of the strategy he had only this very morning thought so clever, the loss of so many of his comrades.

Bitter tears at last trickled down his cheeks.

Jim. Oh, God, Jim.

 

*